The amount of time required to rework a piece is often too great, and it’s best to let it go.
I once read the debut novel by a YA author. I was quite taken by it. I loved her humor and writing style. I wanted more, but since it was her first published novel I would need to wait.
I later learned something surprising: she had written five other novels, all unpublished. True, few novelists land a publishing deal on their first novel. Or their second or they’re third. I understand it typically takes four or five before they find their voice and hone their craft. I heard of another author who wrote nine novels before he sold one.
Since I don’t write novels (yet), I wondered why authors give up on their initial attempts. Just fix the flaws in their back material, and it’s good to go. However, this may be naive thinking.
I recently pulled out a short story I wrote several decades ago. It is the oldest one that I still have. I read it. The premise was good. I grabbed readers with the opening, surprised them at the end, and had an interesting arc in the between part. All it needed was a simple edit to incorporate what I now know.
It wasn’t that simple.
First, I had written it in third-person omniscient. This was fine in 1977 but not acceptable for today’s market. Publishing’s gatekeepers now deem head-hopping verboten. I picked a point-of-view (POV) character, the mom, which required I rewrite all the scenes that included the dad’s, daughter’s, and boyfriend’s thoughts; this accounted for most of the story. Plus it took too many false starts to home in on the right POV character. Third-person omniscient writing is no longer acceptable. Click To Tweet
Next, my narrator’s voice was a juvenile’s, which makes sense because I was a teenager when I wrote it. I needed to update that as well. Last was a pleasant reality that I’m a much better writer now and had scores of novice errors to fix.
After several rewrites and the investment of too much time, my once unacceptable short story was now acceptable: good but not great. An editor told me as much in his rejection email when I submitted it for publication.
I suspect I spent four times the work trying to fix this old short story as I would have spent writing and polishing a new one. I should have thrown it away and focused on new material.
Now I understand why some first novels aren’t worth the effort to fix.
What is your experience trying to breathe new life into old work? Do you have a first novel that isn’t worth fixing?
Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!